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Vintage journey

With tastings and tours, five wineries in southeast New England are making a splash

By Diana Kuan
Globe Correspondent / October 15, 2006
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MIDDLETOWN, R.I. -- Bordeaux seemed too far to go for a weekend. So did Napa, for that matter. But we did want to visit wineries where we could see how the grapes were grown and taste the result of their loving cultivation. So we headed southeast.

Southeastern New England doesn't have the name recognition and history of better-known wine-growing regions, but five wineries between Newport and North Dartmouth have joined in a collaborative effort called the Coastal Wine Trail to spread the word and show off their reds and whites.

While following the trail from vineyard to vineyard, you can take in the natural beauty of the area -- sweeping marshes and rocky shores straight out of an Edward Hopper painting -- while also enjoying some truly delightful vintages. All without trans continental travel.

Our journey began on Interstate 93 in Massachusetts, where industrial park scenery soon gave way to Route 24's tree-lined roadside. An hour later, after several exits and a wrong turn, we saw a large stretch of planted vines just off Middletown's main road. To our great good fortune, Newport Vineyards was also the site of a Saturday farmer's market. Deciding against drinking on an empty stomach, especially at 11 a.m., we picked up some fruit and baked goods for a quick picnic on the grass.

John and Paul Nunes, brothers whose family has owned a farm here since 1917, started planting vines in 1977 to help preserve their property from development. After acquiring two other farms, they now have 75 acres, with 55 acres planted in vines. Liz McFarland, our tour guide, led our group out to the vineyard to see and touch the grapes, with a gentle admonition not to pick anything.

Neatly trimmed rows of grapes were clearly labeled: lemberger, cabernet franc, merlot, and so on. The Rhode Island coast, according to McFarland, has a climate well-suited for growing grapes. ``In the winter we don't get 20 feet of snow dumped on us," she said, ``and during summer heat waves, our grapes don't fry because of the coastal breeze." A good amount of annual rainfall provides natural irrigation.

Newport puts out 26 wines a year, the most from any of the wineries along the trail, and has a 1,000-square- foot tasting room to display them all. The selection is heavy on traditional wines like sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, but also has blends like Gemini, a combination of merlot and Maréchal Foch with a peppery finish. A $5 tasting gets you five choices from the long list, but we forked over an extra dollar for a generous pour of the vidal ice wine, an especially rich dessert wine. The grapes are left on the vines until winter and harvested after the third hard frost to maximize sugar concentration.

Greenvale Vineyards, on the banks of the Sakonnet River, is about five minutes away over some back roads. If Newport is the established crowd-pleaser, then Greenvale is the hidden gem with understated charm. The Parker family has owned the land since the 1860s. The first vines were planted in 1982, and the family sold the grapes to Sakonnet Vineyards for years before starting to make its own wine.

Susan Parker Wilson and her husband, Bill, run the vineyard, which proved to be fertile ground for experimentation. On our hike from plot to plot, we dodged leafy shoots that the winemaker leaves overgrown in an effort to balance acidity levels in the soil. Bill Wilson pointed out a row of chardonnay vines that have grapes growing both high and low. The vineyard has mostly traditional vinifera grapes, but is also trying out cayuga, a new European hybrid, which they blend with vidal blanc in the Skipping Stone White. Greenvale is the mom-and-pop winery you visit to get an up-close look at winemaking from passionate individuals who live and breathe their work. ``We're always experimenting and learning," Wilson said.

The tasting room is a restored stable that still has original woodwork intact. Visitors milled around or sat, listening to jazz singer Armstead Christian, one of the musicians in Greenvale's rotating roster for Saturday concerts. Both inside and out, the vineyard has an elegance that stems from being unmanicured and low-key. Couples sipping wine on the lawn seem as at home as the pair of Scottish Highlander cows grazing in a nearby pasture.

Our last stop of the day was Sakonnet Vineyards, about 35 minutes from Greenvale. The larger-scale vineyard generates 50,000 cases a year, including a gewurtzraminer and vidal blanc that have been highly touted in the press. A word of advice: When visiting a popular vineyard, go early in the day. We arrived in the afternoon and the tasting room was packed with people, including a large bachelorette party. We took a production tour, but neither before nor afterward were we able to get a pourer's attention to taste the wines.

The next morning, before heading to Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery , we drove toHorseneck Beach in Westport for a stroll along the shore. The nearby, beachside Back Eddy restaurant, specializing in local seafood, is a good place for lunch, as is the more casual Way Back Eddy, which serves hamburgers and sandwiches under the dictum ``No shirt, no shoes, no problem."

We backtracked on the main road to Westport Rivers. The vineyard's 88 acres stretch along a branch of the river that is an inlet of Rhode Island Sound. A beautiful historic al farmhouse holds the store and tasting room. Outside stands a large trellis with hanging vines and drooping trees that make you want to hang a hammock between them.

Bob and Carol Russell bought the 140-acre former dairy farm in 1982. Their son Rob started planting vines in 1986, and three years later their other son, Bill, began making the wine. (The family also owns the tiny Buzzards Bay Brewing operation down the road; besides producing great beer, it also serves to protect 150 acres of agricultural land from development.) The Russells produce only white wine with European vinifera grapes, and sparkling wine makes up half of the vineyard's output. Kendra Furman, a nursing student who works weekends at the vineyard, led our group into an aging room for sparkling wines. At full capacity, the room holds 9,000 bottles that have to be rotated in special metal cages, then stored in wooden bays.

At the bar, Furman led a group tasting that included the best-selling Westport Brut Cuvée, a sparkling fruity wine with a creamy finish. A standout on the list was the pineau de pinot, a brandy-scented dessert wine distilled in Nantucket. We were given chocolate morsels to eat between sips, and after the tasting immediately bought a bottle for what I'm sure will be an exclusive pineau-and-chocolate feast at some point in the future.

About 20 minutes from Westport on a quiet back road in Dartmouth is Running Brook Vineyards, a winery in the making. Manual Morais, born and raised in the Azores in Portugal, has been making wine in his own small Dartmouth winery since 1975. Looking to expand, he teamed up with Pedro Teixeira, a local dentist and countryman, and bought the property. They built a new barn this year to house the steel tanks, oak barrels, and tasting area in a single open space. Plans are in the works for a sit-down tasting room and event area. The current space may seem very raw, but it gives a good sense of what a new winery starting from scratch looks like in its first few years.

Jackie Pinheiro, a local glassworks artist, was manning the counter. ``There's a good flow of visitors who are just learning about the winery," she said. ``Couples and groups who visited other wineries in the area eventually find their way here."

The wine trail can be done in a day assuming you just taste and don't tour, but for purposes of sobriety and relaxation , a weekend trip is the way to go. On the rapidly developing Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts, there are still pockets shaped by agriculture and preservation.

These five vineyards are aiming to make noise in the wine world, but for now at least, their landscapes remain idyllic and quiet.

Contact Diana Kuan, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, at dianakuan@gmail.com.

If You Go

For detailed directions and more information on the Coastal Wine Trail of Southeastern New England, go to www.coastalwinetrail.com. At each vineyard, tours are free and tastings are $5.


Newport Vineyards

909 East Main Road (Route 128)

Middletown, R.I.

401-848-5161

www.newportvineyards.com

Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5. Tours daily at 1 and 3 .

Greenvale Vineyards 582 Wapping Road

Portsmouth, R.I.

401-847-3777

www.greenvale.com

Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5. Tours daily at 2 . Free jazz concerts Saturday s 1-5.

Sakonnet Vineyards

162 West Main Road

Little Compton, R.I.

401-635-8486

www.sakonnetwine.com

Daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tours daily at noon, 2, and 4.

Running Brook Vineyards

335 Old Fall River Road

North Dartmouth

508-985-1998

www.runningbrookwine.com

Daily 1-5 p.m. No tours.

Westport Rivers Vineyardand Winery

417 Hix Bridge Road

Westport

508-636-3423; 800-993-9695

www.westportrivers.com

Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday-Monday 1-5. Weekend tours at 1 and 3 .